This year started with a bang in Brazil’s capital. Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters protested election results by rioting, breaching government buildings and fighting police, leading to hundreds of arrests. And who’s there representing the United States?
It’s the president’s new ambassador, who has made incendiary comments about Jewish and Cuban Americans. She is someone whose confirmation undercuts the president’s pronouncement at last month’s White House Hanukkah party that “silence” about antisemitism “is complicity.”
Elizabeth Frawley Bagley’s ambassadorial nomination stirred controversy after The Washington Free Beacon publicized inflammatory remarks Bagley made as part of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project in 1998.
Bagley charged that the Cuban American National Foundation, a major Cuban-American organization, “played both sides” and that Democrats’ wooing of Cuban-Americans “is not [about voter] numbers, it is like the Jewish factor, it’s money.”
Asked about “the Israeli influence” on the Clinton-Gore campaign, which the interviewer called “one of the big things of any campaign,” Bagley replied, “There is always the influence of the Jewish lobby because there is major money involved.” Bagley asserted that this influence was behind “the usual ‘make Jerusalem the capital of Israel’” campaign promise, which Bagley considered one of the “stupid things” Democrats say.
These were not private comments. Nor were they a youthful indiscretion. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) rightly followed up.
Cardin noted, “The choice of words fit into the traditional tropes of antisemitism,” but oddly added that he expected the former ambassador to Portugal’s “language would have been more guarded than that,” as if veiled antisemitism were acceptable.
Meanwhile, Menendez asked, “Is it a suggestion that one group of Americans don’t have the right to engage in the political process as others do?”
For a diplomat, Bagley’s answers were poor. She told Cardin, “I regret that you would think that it was a problem” and “I certainly didn’t mean anything by it. It was a poor choice of words.”
Bagley informed Menendez, “I’m very sorry that we ever had the interview. [It] didn’t really make sense to do. … It certainly does not reflect my views on Jewish Americans or Cuban Americans or anyone else.”
This doesn’t explain Bagley’s word choice or supposedly misrepresented views. Saying she “strongly support[s] the right of Jewish Americans, Cuban Americans, Irish Americans, all Americans to be part of the political process, to be politically active, to raise money, give money to those that they support, as I have done myself” also doesn’t elucidate how or when her views might have changed. Bagley leaves listeners believing her real regret is that the interview resurfaced.
Still, Biden stood by Bagley, as did all 11 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Cardin and Menendez. Neither senator responded to requests for comment about what won them over. Not one senator objected to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)’s request for unanimous consent on the Dec. 14 vote that confirmed Bagley.
That voice vote would likely not have been possible without Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Warner, who is not on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championed Bagley’s cause. Asked why he prioritized this particular nomination, Rachel Cohen, Warner’s communications director, explained, “Sen. Warner was deeply concerned by the vacancy in Brazil, which as the largest economy in South America is a key relationship for the United States. Like many other members of Congress, Sen. Warner has known Ambassador Bagley for years and her credentials were not in doubt.”
Bagley has been in and around Democratic politics and foreign policy for decades. However, looking at her biography, it’s not clear what uniquely qualifies Bagley for this particular post.
Like some other ambassadors, Bagley has excelled as a political donor. Open Secrets, which tracks political contributions, has over 900 citations of Bagley’s name, stretching back more than 30 years. Beneficiaries have included President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Warner and eight of the 11 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Sen. Booker. (Last year’s contribution to Sen. Menendez was refunded.)
As for Bagley’s diplomatic skills, organizations that opposed her nomination last June were not persuaded.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, commented, “Those sentiments about Jewish control, etc. are toxic. … We all appreciate the White House, starting with speaking in a high-profile way against antisemitism, but words are meaningless when such a nomination was allowed to pass.”
Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein remarked, “Confirming Jew-hater Bagley’s nomination makes clear Congress and the Biden administration is not serious about fighting the rising scourge of Jew-hatred. … I’m more than disappointed—I’m frightened.”
Liora Rez, executive director of StopAntisemitism, described the Senate’s “voice vote … that denies any accountability” as “discouraging.”
Rabbi Cooper observed that “going forward, we cannot make a dent in the struggle against antisemitism” without bipartisanship and “consequence[s] for bigots.”
The question is: Are American leaders determined to hold that line? One or more unnamed Republican senators held up the Bagley nomination for much of 2022, but whether they were convinced the new Congress would inevitably confirm Bagley or by something else, they relented.
Biden’s unwavering loyalty to Bagley, along with the Senate’s confirmation, signals that openly antisemitic statements no longer disqualify nominees for prominent positions of public trust. Such statements no longer require repudiation. Flimsy explanations are sufficient, as partisanship trumps moral guardrails.
By Biden’s own logic, he and every senator who helped confirm Bagley are more than complicit in the rising antisemitism he claims to oppose.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer in metro Washington.
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